Monday, August 13, 2012

We Need to Talk About Pamela

I just finished reading Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), which I was really impressed by. **Full Spoilers Ahead.**

Kevin is a deft examination of the nihilism attendant to the privileged life (admittedly not the most groundbreaking topic in the world, but bear with me). Boredom forms a thin membrane holding in the revulsion and anger that the narrator Eva feels towards the crass, meaningless world she inhabits. Her decision to have a child is an attempt to overcome that boredom, to sublimate that underlying rage into a (pro)creative act. The result, Kevin, rather than giving her the liberating experience of engaging with something new and different from herself, is in fact only the embodiment of her own destructive feelings in an angry boy with a strong sense of the absurd and an incapacity to care for others. Following the motherhood-as-artistic-act metaphor, Eva learns that creation does not afford an escape from herself but only drives her further into solipsism. She cannot make something new but can only rearrange what is already within her, and not for the better.

Kevin's drive to reveal the emptiness of what is held sacred, demonstrated in his destruction of Eva's cherished maps.

A good story on its own, but what I realized on reflection is how the form--Kevin is an epistolary novel--not only drives home the questions the novel explores (Eva is aware that the addressee of her letters is deceased, further emphasizing the iterative, narcissistic nature of reproduction, whether artistic, narrative, or biological) but also places it in a genealogy of epistolary novels (wow, the meta just hit me), the context of which further illuminates the meaning of this form--why we find it useful for thinking through certain tensions.

Eva and the Kevins, from the 2011 film adaptation of the novel.

Several novels come to mind: Frankenstein (1818) shares with Kevin the theme of creation gone wrong (... and  killing everyone you know). Carrie (1974) is also about warped maternal relationships, the trauma of adolescence, and the connection between sexuality and violence.

Illustration of Frankenstein and the Creature (Berni Wrightson, 1983)

Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), however, is the big-name (in literary criticism anyway) precursor in this tradition, so I'll focus on that. [Note: John Mullan has also written about the epistolary form in Kevin and mentions Pamela as a predecessor.] Written about 250 years before Kevin, Pamela is associated with the birth of popular culture--it was a best-seller, generating early fanworks, town-wide reading groups, and many unauthorized sequels and parodies by writers hoping to profit off its success. It is also associated with controversy, as many pointed out that the repeated sexual assaults on Pamela, though successfully fended off and ultimately defeated by the virtue of love and marriage--well, you are rolling your eyes now, I'm sure, and so were 18th-century readers. Tacked-on moral or not, the novel was still all about sex.

Mr. B spies on Pamela undressing (Joseph Highmore, 1743-4)

Likewise, Kevin was Shriver's big break, a runaway popular and critical success. Its controversial subject matter caused Shriver's own agent as well as dozens of others to turn it away, asking her to make the story less ambivalent, less violent... to give the reader the comfort of a clear moral and a clear winner. But in the epistolary novel, psychological truth is everything, and moral and motivational ambivalence are unavoidable in the intensive self-evaluations the narrators' letters facilitate. The question comes up, both against Pamela and Eva, of their reliability--whether they are telling the "facts," delusional, or actually vindictively manipulating the people around them (including the reader). But this form is not about the empirical truths an omniscient, impersonal narrator could provide. It is about questioning yourself, which undermines your epistemological grounds.

Additionally, both Kevin and Pamela are about bad men and the women who love and refuse to leave them. Kevin is disturbingly sexualized throughout the novel so at first it most strongly reminded me of Lolita, though of course the story takes a very different shape when the genders are reversed. Kevin and Pamela are about a woman writer under the continual malevolent surveillance of a man who inflicts increasing torments on her, escalating towards a seemingly inevitable apotheosis of violence. Rather than LEAVING, which the reader is constantly urging the narrator to do (at the same time continuing to turn the pages, eagerly seeking that violent moment), the women simply observe and record, hoping that their men will change.

In the end, both do. Decisively, in Pamela (Mr. B becomes a devoted husband, out promoting his wife's novel and throwing her elaborate dinner parties) and the 21st-century-equivalent-of-decisively in Kevin (Kevin gives his mom back the prosthetic eye he stole from his dead sister's body so that Eva can give it a proper burial). Pamela settles into domestic bliss, and Eva sets up a bedroom in hopeful anticipation of her son's eventual return.  Letter-writing thus functions as an outlet for the woman's desire to engage with the outside world, to feel that she is an agent and can communicate, while keeping her safely within bourgeois domestic space (and, yes, I recognize the irony of me blogging about this--recognize and ignore). While Eva was once a globetrotting travel writer, as Kevin becomes a greater part of her life she retreats, confining herself to the home and defining herself solely in relation to a man who goes out and acts on the world. Given that Pamela is set in the eighteenth century, it's no surprise that she does the same. However, though Pamela stops writing, there is no indication that Eva will. Yet this provides little reassurance, returning us to the problem that begins the novel: creation to alleviate boredom only re-shapes and adds to the chaos that is always there.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Desperately Seeking Sandra

A frequent observation in many of the mostly positive reviews of Young Adult has been confusion over the ending. And it's understandable why [full spoilers ahead].

Mavis (Charlize Theron's character), after returning to her hometown to break up the relationship between her high school boyfriend Buddy and his wife Beth, and drunkenly cursing them out at their baby-naming ceremony, goes to the house of her former classmate Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt), who she's been bonding with over their complementary alcoholic/melancholic personalities. He was severely injured from the waist down in a high school gay-bashing incident (a plot point unmentioned in the trailer that really complicates the movie--Patton Oswalt discusses it here), and he and Mavis sleep together. I'm not really sure how to interpret that. But most of the reviewers are with the film up to this point. It's the following scene that throws them. The film ends with Mavis encountering Sandra, Matt's sister, in the kitchen the next morning. Sandra basically tells Mavis to forget what her family and former friends think--she argues that a.) they only seem happy because they're shallow and b.) the reason they don't experience the anxiety and alienation that trouble Mavis is because their lives are pointless--they "might as well be dead."

Trust her--she's a doctor.

Sandra tells Mavis that she matters, that she's somebody. Sandra confesses that whenever she feels bored or fed up, she daydreams about Mavis, wondering what she's doing. As Mavis gets up to return to Minneapolis, Sandra blurts, "take me with you." Mavis smiles sadly and says gently, "No. You're good here."

So, reviewers seem to feel let down because instead of learning to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life or repenting at all, Mavis is told that actually her feelings are justified and that she shouldn't change in any way.

You're on the right track, baby.

I'd argue that this ending actually makes perfect sense if you're coming at from the context of lesbian history and culture. Reviewers sort of get that the movie has something to do with lesbians--what they say is, "Charlize Theron gets all ugly [sic] in this movie, and also mean, just like when she was a murderous lesbian in Monster!" Well, that's halfway there. Women refusing to conform to patriarchal expectations is often interpreted as threateningly emasculating, "unattractive," and not very nice at all.

Charlize Theron's characters in both Monster and Young Adult are unwilling to become passive, pleasant, made-up dolls in order to fit into heterosexual culture, and so they read as "unheterosexual" (D.A. Miller's term found here in reference to Jane Austen) in various ways.

In addition to Charlize Theron, most of the main characters in this film had already taken part in creating other lesbian media. Elizabeth Reaser played gay in one of my favorite movies, Puccini for Beginners, Jill Eikenberry was on Hill Street Blues, Hettienne Park was in The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, and Patrick Wilson was in Running With Scissors (Annette Bening/Kristin Chenoweth ftw!). And if these admittedly insider-y signals don't trigger the lesbian lens in your head to engage, both the director Jason Reitman (with Vera Farmiga's character in Up in the Air) and writer Diablo Cody (in basically every moment of Jennifer's Body) have demonstrated their interest in seriously exploring women's relationships with each other, especially when the desire expressed doesn't fit into easy labels or familiar narratives.

And if the lesbian lens still hasn't been triggered at this point, all the flannel in the movie should do it.

To rattle off a few more key contexts: Mavis lives in Minneapolis, home of the Dykes to Watch Out For. Diablo Cody says the idea for Mavis emerged from considering the kind of woman who gets labeled "emotionally stunted" or "stuck in adolescence"--precisely the terms sexologists used for hundreds of years to characterize lesbian desire. And with Mavis's alcohol binges, Jack Mann-esque pal Matt, and what reviewers call her "psychotic" behavior she is basically a Beebo Brinker of the 21st century.

And it doesn't take a Freudian to figure out what the small fuzzy burden she's always carrying around and neglecting symbolizes.

Finally, Mavis is a ghost writer for a book series whose covers look suspiciously similar to 1990s era Sweet Valley High. A series that made my naive tween self pray every night for a twin, because I had a vaguely understood but very strong sense that what I wanted most was to meet a girl, like me but different, to share clothes, intimate conversation, and my bed. I realize that not all or even most twins do any of this, especially the last one, but you better believe Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield did. And the amount of femslash they've inspired indicates I'm not the only one who was thinking along these lines. They, like Mavis and Sandra, occupy the blurry area around "passionate friendship" that allows you to be incredibly close to another women, including in an erotic sense, without defining it as an inborn sexual orientation.

You can see why I was confused.

Like the lesbian references detailed above, Sandra also lurks around the margins of this movie, rarely coming fully into focus.

Literally. It's almost impossible to find a non-blurry picture of her online.

But she's frequently there. She listens at the doorway when Matt and Mavis talk. She reminds Mavis about the time she made Rice Krispie treats for Mavis's birthday in high school, getting special permission from their school to get into Mavis's locker to hide them as a surprise for her. Sandra was basically the Janis Ian of the 90s [and, to be clear, I do think Janis Ian ends up a lesbian eventually].

"Making a Georgia O'Keefe-style painting of us together does NOT mean I'm obsessed with you!"

Sandra's plotline serves as a counterpoint to Matt's. Both his experience with gay bashing and his sense of himself as possessing a clear, inborn (hetero) sexual orientation accord with the most prevalent mainstream narratives about sexuality. When we think about what it means to be gay, what comes to mind is usually a white man, clearly either masculine or feminine, who has known all his life that he is definitely gay. Many studies (from Havelock Ellis to Dean Hamer) have been carried out to try and prove that there are biological differences that clearly divide the population into either gay or straight [of course they all suffer from the fact that there is no way of judging how gay or straight their test subjects are].

But these studies get suddenly less sure of themselves when it comes to women. All of the sudden it's like, "Uh... women are difficult. Their sexuality is, like, more fluid." Over the course of their liftetimes, women are more likely to experience desire that does not fall along strict gender lines. It is this kind of undefined attraction between women that the film concludes with. Mavis encounters reproductive heterosexuality, clinically strict popular perceptions of gender-defined sexual orientation, and finally finds inspiration from this third possibility, in which the expression of desire between women leads to creativity, insight, and personal growth.

"Oh! It's not that he doesn't want a baby--I don't!"

Again, this narrative of sexuality can be difficult to accept because it doesn't begin with the assumption that gender and orientation are unquestionable self-truths. Instead it does what Cody and Reitman do so well: explores the lives of people who refuse to settle down and stop changing at age thirty. These characters--Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, Mark Loring in Juno, Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking, and now Mavis--are not unequivocally "good" people. Actually, they're bad people a lot of the time. They're also complex, engaging, and critical and that's exactly what makes these movies "adult."

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


or, "Why to love Twilight, or at least not hate it."

I'd been anticipating the release of Breaking Dawn, Part 1 with a mixture of excitement and preemptive frustration. The films have been consistently excellent interpretations of the series: artful, compassionately humanist, and loyal to the spirit of Stephenie Meyer's vision while still offering a unique interpretation of the story--the films are worthwhile in their own right, separate from the books. Something that cannot be said of the majority of the much-lauded Harry Potter films (with the notable exception of Deathly Hallows, Part One and arguably Half-Blood Prince). [I don't want to get bogged down in the HP v. Twilight debate right now, but anyone who wants to talk about it in relation to feminist ethics should really check out Sady Doyle's "In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger Series."]

So, anyway, I was excited about the film (which did not disappoint--I think it's actually the best so far), but preemptively frustrated by the reinvigoration of Twilight hate flooding the internets and other social circles I inhabit. All of which boils down to some combination of, "It's not aesthetically good," "It's not smart," and "It's not feminist." [See NPR's review of BDpt1.]

99% of the world's vampire hate is directed at 1% of the world's vampires.

I didn't want to respond directly to these criticisms because I don't think The Twilight Saga should have to defend itself--but apparently it does. I'd rather celebrate the complex and impressive things it's offering. So, I decided to split the difference, and came up with:

Three Reasons not to Hate Twilight and Three Reasons to Love It

Three Reasons not to Hate:

1.) Most Twilight hate is misogynistic.

Criticisms of Twilight revive a host of misogynistic cliches. Stephenie Meyer is mocked for her appearance, for having an imaginative inner life, and for having a sex drive. People assume she must not know anything because she's a wife and mother. Her writing is mocked as "purple" and "Baroque" by people who are happy to read pages and pages of manpain by all those dudes who go by three names that we read in classes on the contemporary novel--because only men are supposed to indulge their pens? (Hey, it had to be said.)

Actually, the reason a lot of people resist the writing is because they don't care about either adolescence or women's experience--they have no sympathy for it, possibly because they're trying to repress their own adolescence and/or frustration over gender norms. In any case, this attitude participates in the long tradition of writing off stories that concern women's lives as trivial and irrelevant to "common human experience"(Cf. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own).

And of course, there's all the hate directed at fans--for being "silly" girls and middle-aged women. People that we refuse to take seriously. This is why I feel so frustrated when fellow feminists make fun of the series--doing so is leveling abuse at women for liking something,  socially policing them. Exactly what feminism shouldn't be about.

This is the face of the enemy?

2.) While we're at it, lots of Twilight hate is homophobic.

People (usually male fans of other vampire franchises) get all pissy that Edward sparkles, wears custom-tailored clothing, is not interested in having sex with his girlfriend, and gets shirtless with Jacob all the time. In other words, they're afraid that liking Twilight will mean they've caught The Gay (or that their girlfriends will become Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys).

Whatever, you know Spike would be all over Edward.

Actually, Twilight does in fact give us an exciting bunch of queer possibilities. Many have pointed out that Edward Cullen can easily by read as closeted. [Jesse Ataide, who blogs here, gave a particularly brilliant paper at the 2009 Midwest Popular Culture Association conference about the correspondences between EC and the trope of the "Sad Young Man."] The film adaptation of Breaking Dawn, Part One shows a real knowledge of queer fan readings of the show, especially at the moment where Bella suggests naming her baby Edward/Jacob [for fandom outsiders, name mashups like that are how you refer to characters, usually two men, whom you ship: e.g. Kirk/Spock, Ron/Harry, Spike/Angel].

And between Alice, Leah, and the Amazons (coming in Breaking Dawn, Part Two), lesbians aren't left out either. 

3.) And most Twilight hate is just inane. Examples:

-"It doesn't make sense that Bella and Edward don't know about birth control." 

This coming from the same people who lament the lack of comprehensive sex education in schools. If anything, the series tells an important story about exactly how unplanned pregnancies occur: people a.) enjoy sex and b.) don't think pregnancy will happen to them. This is not a story that is anti-birth control--it's one of the few that, as Sarah Blackwood points out in her brilliantly titled post "Our Bella, Ourselves," offers a frank exploration of what the culture of reproductive sex can mean for women.

-Twilight will cause girls to become (too religious/not religious enough/afraid of sex/too into sex/obsessed with its story world/have unrealistic expectations/etc).

First of all, I hate this condescending, knight-in-shining-armor stance people take towards adolescent girls. As though young women (and the many other women who enjoy Twilight) need another person denying that they have any agency. This high-minded moralizing is mostly just an indirect, sex-panicky way of trying (yet again) to control women's bodies and minds. Because letting women explore their experiences and desires as they relate to sexuality is just too scary.

-And, finally, my personal favorite: "Vampire baseball is stupid."

No, baseball is stupid. Or at least, playing it makes you look stupid.

No offense, guys.

Which is why we can't imagine immortal supercreatures playing it. Given the amount of money and attention we collectively spend on sports, that says something about the shame we have deep down about how we occupy our leisure time. [This critique also applies to Twilight-haters who make fun of the fact that the characters go to high school, get married, and have babies--apparently these are the things we're secretly embarrassed about?]

Three Reasons to Love:

1.) It is a powerful contribution to the canon of feminist thought.

It takes women's bodies seriously, exploring the realities of sex, pregnancy, and childbirth in raw and sometimes frightening detail. It takes women's social experience seriously, showing what it means to be the object of the Gaze, to face society's lack of knowledge about women's health (Carlisle), to be subject to street harassment (which it depicts very accurately), to have confusing passionate friendships with other women, to demand control over your own body.

It's also a story that a lot of women like. Written by a woman, relevant to her own experience of the anxieties, desires, hopes, and fears that characterize her social reality. These factors alone make it of interest to feminist thought.

But, finally, it is in sync with and practically begs to be read alongside Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Simone de Beauvoir, and other major contributors to contemporary thought. The academy, if no one else, should take it seriously.

2.) It offers a critical perspective on U.S. self-mythologizing.

Carlisle, the Cullen patriarch, is a 17th-century English Puritan who founds a new way of living (he is literally a Renaissance humanist), moving to America and putting together a group of like-minded people who  band together under the social contract he promotes. They go on to establish and then break treaties with Native Americans, play baseball, and live an almost parodic version of the white, capitalist, upwardly mobile lifestyle. They seem suspiciously Mormon--the American religion if there ever was one--and consider themselves a "City on a Hill" to their fellow vampires.

If you have any interest in U.S. social history in the popular imagination, in U.S. religion, the American Dream, or in the fine, fine line between imitation and satire--this is the place to go.

No joke: Carlisle Cullen has been featured in a Forbes Top 15 Wealthiest list.

3.) It addresses key questions about how to conceptualize the body (and soul) in the age of 21st century technologies.

Twilight vampires and werewolves have genetically altered bodies that make them immortal and superhuman. Their creation (in which Carlisle, who is an MD, has significant influence) is directly relevant to contemporary concerns about genetic engineering and the posthuman. Much of the characters', especially Bella's, fears about her child involve the uncertainty about what this new kind of person will be--whether it will respect human life, whether it will make us all obsolete, whether it will have a soul. The series raises all kinds of questions about the nature of the soul in a secular age of advanced biotechnology. And its concerns for the future of humanity are as real and significant as those raised by any science fiction story. Quoting the Volturi (the vampire government) leader, Aro: ironic it is that as the humans advance, as their faith in science grows and controls their world, the more free we are from discovery. Yet as we become ever more uninhibited by their disbelief in the supernatural, they become strong enough in their technologies that, if they wished, they could actually pose a threat to us, even destroy some of us ... This last raw, angry century has given birth to weapons of such power that they endanger even immortals (Breaking Dawn 715-716).

The use of "given birth" is no coincidence there. This is a story world where attention to women's reproductive agency is central in any question about the future.

Final Thought: I've avoided addressing exactly what I think is aesthetically good about the series because it would be a pretty involved discussion and this post is already unreasonably long. So I'll just say: anyone who has a doubt about this, try watching Breaking Dawn, Part One with this quote in mind:

More perfectly than any other fairy-tale, Snow-White expresses melancholy. The pure image of this mood is the queen looking out into the snow through her window and wishing for her daughter, after the lifelessly living beauty of the flakes, the black mourning of the window-frame, the stab of bleeding; and then dying in childbirth. The happy end takes away nothing of this. As the granting of her wish is death, so the saving remains illusion. For deeper knowledge cannot believe that she was awakened who lies as if asleep in the glass coffin.
So, when we are hoping for rescue, a voice tells us that hope is in vain, yet it is powerless hope alone that allows us to draw a single breath. All contemplation can do no more than patiently trace the ambiguity of melancholy in ever new configurations. Truth is inseparable from the illusory belief that from the figures of the unreal one day, in spite of all, real deliverance will come (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia 121-122).

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eat, Pray, Lesbian Love

Like usual, I'm late to the game commenting on Eat Pray Love. I finally saw the film about a week ago, thanks to Alex, who was nice enough to watch it again.

Actually, I'm glad I came to the film late, because I had already had time to process the imperialist, capitalist, sexist, and otherwise problematic aspects of the film--because I was ready for them thanks to the many online and in-person debates I'd heard, those things weren't as frustrating as they might have been. [Side note: that's a little unsettling--listening to reasoned critiques about these issues apparently desensitized me to them completely? It did make me feel like they were already "taken care of" even though obviously that makes no sense.]

But on to the film. So, as far as I can tell, Eat Pray Love can best be understood as part of the minor but significant tradition of Melancholic Lesbian Travel Writing. Major forerunners include Constance Fenimore Woolson's "Felipa" and Jane (Auer) Bowles's "Everything Is Nice," both of which can be found in Lillian Faderman's stellar anthology Chloe Plus Olivia. All three stories involve single women trying to find themselves through world travel, but ultimately finding themselves passionately falling into a relationship with another woman: a relationship that, for one reason or another, is doomed to be short-lived.

Fact: My girlfriend has that exact hat.

So Liz Gilbert (better known as Julia Roberts) goes through a mid-life divorce, briefly dates James Franco, but still hasn't found what she's looking for. Cf. the well-known O Magazine article on middle-aged women discovering bisexuality.

Fact: Dating James Franco is precisely between heterosexuality and lesbianism on the Kinsey Scale.

Enter Sofi. The short-haired Swedish power lesbian who helps Liz rediscover eroticism, thinly veiled in language of food-lust. Not too thinly veiled, though. I'm pretty sure that if you did a Wordle of their dialogue, "Eat" and "Muffin" would be the most common words.

Sofi flashes the international lesbian symbol for "Let's adopt a kitten together!"

The film's sole sex scene takes place between the two. After what the script describes as "pornographic" and "sensual" shots of the two eating pizza together and each woman talking about how hot the other one would look naked, they go jean shopping. Liz selects a particularly tight pair of jeans and invites Sofi into the dressing room to help her zip them up. You should really watch the scene yourself--I'd feel a little too awkward describing it, but the subtext is pretty clear. Actually, it barely even qualifies as subtext at all. The two go at it, Liz asking Sofi to, "Put some Swedish muscle into it!" [In an interview, Julia Roberts said this was her favorite scene to film. No doubt.]

I couldn't find an image of the scene online, but this one seems to work.

Ruffina, who I think is Liz's friend Giovanni's mother (or maybe Luca Spaghetti's mother? Who knows? And, yes, there really was a character named Luca Spaghetti in this movie), is the only one who seems to get what's going on. She listens to Liz's story and recognizes all the signs, asking Giovanni, "What's wrong with your friend? Is she a lesbian?" Liz and the others laugh it off, but there's no mistaking Sofi's gaze.

Their relationship soon ends as the women part ways to follow their individual paths of self-actualization [which is a pretty lesbian ending if you think about it]. But a key insight from Sofi continues to shape Liz's path. Sofi reflects, "Maybe you're a woman in search of a word." What word you might ask? That which inter christianos non nominandum? Nope, but you're close.


One of Liz and Sofi's first dates. Sofi is the one in the flannel, natch.

Liz's motto becomes one of the first Italian words she learned, "Attraversiamo," meaning "Let's cross over," a beautiful tagline for any story of a woman (or man, for that matter) experiencing a sexual and emotional reawakening, but one especially apt for this particular segment of the film. Actually, if I were going to remix this as a lesbian short film (or at least a fanvid), I'd call it "Attraversiamo." Somebody please make that happen.

Liz/Sofi ("Lofi"?) fanart courtesy of Gilla.

And if you think I'm reading too much into this--that the writers never intended this subtext, just remember: Ryan Murphy writes for Glee and Jennifer Salt went to Sarah Lawrence.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Paranoia and the Pat-Down

After reading adornofangirl's post this morning detailing her sister's objections to TSA screening procedures, I did a little more research online and decided to opt-out. Besides the health risks which initially motivated this decision, reading the official TSA blog post on this issue cemented the decision.

The post used obviously misrepresented data, illogical arguments, and straight-up bullying (e.g. calling reports of negative experiences with screening procedures "unfounded" and "outlandish claims") to persuade readers to cooperate. The commenters all saw through it, of course, and are worth reading (especially because they contain helpful links). My favorite comment was from "Chris Bray":

Blogger Bob, you have a bureaucrat's gift for changing the substance of a criticism as you pretend to respond to it. You seem to be unable to notice what you're saying as you say it. Compare the format:

1.) Is the new pat-down invasive? No, it's only for people who set off a metal detector alarm or refuse AIT. (yours)

2.) Are you going to punch me in the face? No, blueberry pancakes. (my example)

Only you don't notice that your non sequiturs are non sequiturs.

Lol. Anyway, I wanted to contribute what I could to the work these commenters were doing in sharing what they know in order to help people make informed decisions about their privacy, bodies, safety, etc. So I'm recording what the experience of opting-out today was like.

While I was standing in line, I asked a nearby TSA official what I would have to do if I was going to opt out (she explained politely--everyone was very polite). Another official overheard me and asked (kindly, though a little condescendingly) what I was afraid of. I gave the best explanation I could of what I'd read that morning, which she and the people around me in line laughed off: "If it was dangerous, they wouldn't let us operate the machines!" etc. I said, "Well, maybe I'm paranoid" (more about that later).

When I got to the scanners, I was directed towards a big blue hallway-looking thing, which I thought might just be a partition I had to walk through to get to the patdown area (it was between two of the old-style scanners that I'm used to). As soon as I approached it, though, I realized it was buzzing loudly and smelled funny (like a lightning storm sort of?). I backed out and asked if it was "the scanner thing" (it was). About three officials sort of pounced over to me and said "not to run away" and directed me to a waiting area.

While I was waiting, I accidentally leaned against (something?) and alarms started going off, which made me feel even more vaguely guilty/nervous than I was already feeling. I also noticed that the pat-downs would take a lot of time and personnel--even at a small airport like this, they wouldn't be able to handle the volume if everyone opted out. In other words, the majority of people have to opt for the scanners in order for the system to work.

The woman who did the pat-down had what I'd describe as a great "bedside manner"--she explained everything she was doing, was friendly, etc. But it is extremely invasive. They touch everything. And pull out the waistband of your pants and look down them. Apparently there's no way to get through airport security without someone seeing your underwear.

Afterwards, when I was getting my things together, I had this sudden rush of emotion like I was about to cry. Even though the whole process went probably as smoothly as possible, and I felt rationally good about it, my body still responded to it as a stressful and upsetting experience.

Anyway, shifting to the subject of paranoia: I watched a lot of X-Files growing up and I'm sure that's shaped how I relate to the world. One of the main things I liked about it was that Mulder and Scully never just accepted what they were told but always delved deeper to come up with more accurate (and, importantly, more interesting) explanations. They were always trying to organize their knowledge and experiences in order to develop complex theories of the truths (out there). Here's their (self-reflexive) analysis of paranoia:

Mulder: "There's something inherently American about paranoia. Given the increasing scarcity of rational things to fear in 20th century American society, we dream up theories whose inevitable result is the chaotic disruption of our comfortable, orderly life--usually with dastardly consequences. I think we get a perverse thrill that comes from it."

Scully: "Mulder, are you suggesting that we somehow create our own quirky focal points of paranoia, as a result of the lack of things that are worth fearing in our day-to-day lives? That we're not whole as beings without something to worry about, something to keep our eye on?"

Does my opting out really have nothing to do with anything rational (being scientifically informed) or politically motivated (advocating for the right to privacy) but actually just my attempt to construct a rational sphere of existence in which I can make informed decisions and assert some semblance of agency? Uncomfortable with the feeling that I don't know anything and no amount of research can lead me to a stable truth with which to guide my decision making, I randomly and subconsciously select a "quirky focal point" that I decide to have a definite opinion on? Some people choose local-vore diets, college basketball, religion, or rocking the vote; I choose airport security--and though we all have our reasonings, maybe at the core we're really just picking our personal brand of paranoia.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Makin' Love in the Afternoon with Aemilia

AJ suggested I think about starting to post again. She's just started her own blog, btw, where she is working through her dissertation research (will be especially interesting to lovers of Adorno, (aca-)fandom, trans-media studies, N+1, gay and lesbian culture, comics--basically anything awesome).

I've been thinking about Aemilia Lanyer lately. It's the 400th yr. anniversary (the text was likely printed in 1610, though the title page reads "1611") of the printing of Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, which combines elements of Biblical commentary, the "defense of women," and "tear poetry" traditions in a meditation on Christ's passion. Some thoughts:

1.) We were reading Lanyer a few days ago in my "Biblical Allusion in the Renaissance Class," and the professor, Hannibal Hamlin, suggested a possible explanation for the title-page-date-weirdness. The King James Version was first printed in 1611, and probably was already being "hyped" while Lanyer was getting her manuscript ready for print. Maybe putting 1611 instead of 1610 on the cover was an attempt to make a connection between them.

2.) Jesus with breasts? See line 1341. Also, interesting refusal to compose a blazon of the Countess's physical body (193-200) contrasting with extended Petrarchan/Song-of-Solomonesque erotic description of Christ's body (1305-1320). And gender-bending galore!

3.) What's up with the title? Obviously a reference to the sign Pilate posted over the cross, except Lanyer adds "Deus" into the quotation--why? She says it came to her in a dream... also, is she implying that her poem belongs in this position--as the sign on top of the cross commenting on Christ's body?

4.) The work includes 11 dedicatory poems to a variety of women: royalty, patrons, friends, and women readers "in generall." Is she attempting to preserve a coterie/intended audience despite the move from manuscript to print? What exactly does printing signify about a woman's writing during this period (besides that male printers considered it marketable)?

5.) Smart work has already been done on homoeroticism in Lanyer's text. People often focus this analysis on "The Description of Cooke-ham," an additional poem in the volume, describing Lanyer's patron the Countess of Cumberland's estate (and likely the first English language country house poem). Anyway, there's this whole scene where the Countess kisses a tree (what) as she leaves the estate, and Lanyer's like "That kiss should be mine!" so she kisses the tree to steal the kiss away. And throughout the poem she's meditating on how class structures get in the way of her relationship with the Countess. Homoerotic?

I wasn't totally convinced until I noticed a passage toward the end of Salve Deus, in which Lanyer describes the Countess: "Even as the constant Lawrell, alwayes greene ... So you (deere Ladie) still remaine as Queene, / Subduing all affections that are base" (1553-1558). Obviously, there's a Daphne and Apollo reference here... making the Countess the untouchable Daphne and Lanyer the poet Apollo who desires but can never touch her. Again, their relationship is mediated through a tree/laurel/poetry. Yet the gender difference between pursuer/poet and pursued/object of poetry in the Ovidean story are recast as socioeconomic distinctions--the Countess is described by the classed terms "Ladie" and "Queene." She subdues "base" affections--the more obvious sense here would be "lewd," but given the context it isn't hard to see the "of lower social standing" definition cropping up here.

Just a few ideas. Lanyer's become so "canonical" that I'd forgotten how much remains to be said/explained/theorized about her.

Monday, March 29, 2010

TV-Inspired Cooking

Here's a recipe I came up with, hoping to impress my gf (her parents are British so she knows her cheese). The idea came from foods mentioned on a couple of tv shows.

The L Word, Kit Porter (Pam Grier!), operator of the lesbian cafe "The Planet" mentions that their best selling menu item is the pear polenta tart

Pushing Daisies's Charlotte "Chuck" Charles (Anna Friel) devises a way to get her cheese aficionado aunts out of their depression and back into their synchronized swimming routines by baking homeopathic mood enhancers into a pie: pear with gruyere baked into the crust.

The Giant Eagle was out of pears, so I used peaches, but I think it would work with either.

"Kit and Chuck's Peach Polenta Tarts"

Ingredients (all measurements are approximate):
-1 tsp. olive oil
-1 1/3 c. water
-1/3 c. cornmeal
-1/2 c. gruyere, grated
-3 tbsp. butter
-cinnamon and sugar
-1 peach
-1/4 c. gruyere, sliced

1.) Grease 8x8 casserole dish with olive oil

2.) In a small saucepan, bring water to a boil. Whisk in cornmeal in a thin stream. Simmer on low heat (it should be just barely bubbling) for twenty to twenty-five minutes, stirring constantly.

3.) When cornmeal mixture is sticky, pulling away from the sides of saucepan, pour into casserole dish. Mix grated gruyere into polenta. Pat down mixture flat. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately ten minutes, until gruyere begins to melt. Press down again so polenta is flat and chill in refrigerator.

4.) Melt butter in microwave. Cut peach into thin slices, about 1/4 in. thick, and brush with butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.

5.) Turn polenta out onto a cookie sheet (it should just slide out when you turn the casserole dish upside down). Cut into 2 in. squares. Place a few peach slices on each. Top with one slice of gruyere per tart. Bake at 350 degrees until cheese melts. Serve hot!